Monday 8 July 2024

Billericay parkrun

Billericay is a town which sits within the Borough of Basildon in the county of Essex with a population of around 31,000 people. It was first recorded as Byllyrica in 1291, but the exact origin of the name is unknown. It has a historical link to the 1381 Peasant's Revolt due to The Battle of Billericay in which the King's soldiers defeated and killed 500 Essex men. The town was said to have been the meeting place of the Pilgrim Fathers shortly before their voyage to the new world in 1620 and many of the names around the town reflect this historic occasion, such as Mayflower School. In 1655 another group of colonists named the town of Billerica, Massachusetts after their English hometown. The two towns are now twinned.

There were a number of local country estates and farms around the town, and in the 19th century a significant number of these were owned by Major Thomas Jenner Spitty. His land provided a source of work for local agricultural workers but following a series of bad harvests, the workers were suffering the effects of mass unemployment. Major Spitty's solution to this was to employ many of the workers to dig a lake on his Hill House Estate. His hope was that the lake would attract wildfowl so that he could host 'elegant shooting parties'. A regular attendee of these parties was Lord Kitchener, most recognisable from the 'Lord Kitchener Wants You' British Army first world war recruitment posters.

The Hill House Estate changed hands multiple times following Major Spitty's death, and some of the land was sold off for house building. In 1935 Billericay Urban District Council purchased the majority of the estate's remaining land and a year later it opened the 40-acre Lake Meadows Park. It wasn't until after the Second World War that additional features were added such as a bowling green, paddling pool, sports pitches, and pavilion. A boathouse and boats had been added by 1949, but these are no longer in operation. The park now also has tennis courts, a cricket pitch, a petanque court, a children's playground, skate park, indoor swimming pool and formal gardens.

On 24 June 2017 the park became home to Billericay parkrun, where it became the 18th 5k parkrun in the county of Essex. It takes place on Saturday mornings at 9am and is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk the course. I first visited the park on 1 July 2017 and took part in event number 2, my second visit was on 6 July 2024 at event number 299 and on both occasions I drove to the venue. There are two car parks at the south-east corner of the park and both are free-of-charge on weekends. The parkrun course page suggests that parkrunners use the Radford Crescent car park, but the other option is to use the Lake Meadows car park which is a tiny bit closer to the park's entrance.

For travel by public transport, the park's main entrance is only around 500 metres from Billericay railway station. The station is served by Greater Anglia trains running between London's Liverpool Street and Southend-on-Sea. There are also a selection of buses that stop at various places in the vicinity of the park, mostly at the main bus stops at the train station (some examples are the bus numbers I can see are; 9, 12, 50, 251, 256, 300, 552, and 561). I would expect anyone considering taking the bus would already be fairly local and know more than I can come up with anyway. For cyclists there are some bicycle racks located at the park's main gate which is accessed via the car park.

The park's toilets are also located in this area of the park, and can be found inside the small brick building on the right hand side immediately after passing through the entrance, just next to 'The Wizard and The Dragon' sculpture. The sculpture itself has an interesting story - in 2013 one of the park's old oak trees died and was due to be removed for safety reasons. However the Friends of Lake Meadows Park suggested and arranged for it to be recycled into a sculpture, the wizard carved from the trunk of the tree and the dragon from the upper part which had been detached - you can read all about it here and see some before and after photos here.

The meeting point, start and finish of the parkrun are all on the northern section of grass, on the opposite side of the park from the car park and toilets, so remember to leave a time buffer in order to walk across. For anybody that visited this venue in its early days, all these key places are in different locations to the original course from 2017. For the record, the course is also slightly different from that original version and I have provided a link to my GPS data of that course for historical reasons at the bottom of this write-up. The first timers and the main briefings both take place on this open grass area, although on my 2024 visit there was some pretty heavy rain from around 8.45am until about 9.10am and I missed them both as I was feebly sheltering under a nearby tree.

The main course takes place over four anti-clockwise laps of the park and features a combination of grass and tarmac. Each lap is 1.25km in length and has an approximate split of 0.95 kilometre on tarmac and 300 metres on grass, giving a grand total of 3.8 kilometres on tarmac and 1.2 kilometres on grass over the course of the 5k. Generally, road shoes should be sufficient for this course. It's not 100% flat as the eastern and northern sections of the park are at a slightly higher elevation than the southern and western parts. It's only a slight rise, so definitely not hilly, just gently undulating at most.

If the conditions are bad enough there is the option for the route to be switched to a five lap course (also anti-clockwise) which removes the main section of potentially muddy and slippery grass and, with the exception of the start, takes place entirely on the tarmac paths. If this course is used, it looks like the start is moved to the area just to the north of the tennis courts and finish to the north-east corner of the lake. I acquired some GPS data from February 2024 and have uploaded it onto my Strava account for reference, and there's also a Relive course fly-by video to accompany it (see the bottom of this page for links).

On this occasion (event 299 / 6 July 2024) the standard four lap course was used and this starts on a beautifully wide start line on the northern grass section with the participants initially heading to the west towards the lake. I will note that part of the grass section involves passing through the centre of the painstakingly perfectly placed arrows, so be sure not to cut the corner when transferring to the tarmac path a few hundred metres later. It's probably a good time to mention that a course with this many laps is always going to feature a large amount of lapping, and to assist with this the standard arrangement is that participants keep to the left and overtaking takes place on the right. For the record, anyone taking more than about 27 minutes is likely to be lapped and those between 27 minutes and about 43 minutes will probably be lapped and also lap some people themselves.

The first part of the tarmac path meanders gently as it works its way around to the north side of the lake. Initially there is a small height difference between the path and the lakeside embankment so watch out for the small drop. The western side of the lake has distinctive blue railings on either side and the views looking across the lake are picturesque, even in the rain. It is home to lots of wildlife including plenty of species of water birds, it is also home to a giant catfish called The Beast of Billericay. As the course reaches the end of the lakeside section, it passes the playground and a marshal point, and heads towards and past the cafe. This is where there is a slight rise in elevation.

The southeast part of the course passes the Flower Garden and the Ornamental Garden before swooping around and past the tennis courts and into another lovely long curve which drops down to the next marshal point. The final part of the lap simply follows the path around to the north east corner of the park where there's a turning back onto the grass and this completes the lap. At the end of the fourth lap the participants enter the wide finishing lane instead of following the main route, and this head straight into the finish funnel. Barcode scanning takes place on the grass, although on this visit the scanners were huddled under the gazebo in an attempt to avoid the rain.

Checking my Garmin at the end of the parkrun, I saw that my son had achieved a new 5 kilometre personal best, so he took the opportunity to pick up ring Billericay parkrun's PB bell, which was great fun! On the subject of Garmins, I had recorded the route, and the GPS data for the current (2024) four-lap anti-clockwise course can be found on my Strava account. I uploaded that data to Relive and the resulting course fly-by video can be viewed on YouTube. The results for event 299 were published a short while later and 182 people completed the course with 31 being recorded as having volunteered. The attendance figure was a little lower than usual, most likely due to the heavy rain. The usual expected number of attendees tends to be around the mid to high 200's with the occasional event exceeding the 300 mark.

Post-parkrun, it is worth finding the Child in the Park bronze statue, which was originally installed in 2001. It features a child crouching down surrounded by plants and many small creatures. During my first visit to the park in July 2017 the statue was not there as it has recently been stolen. However it was found in a wheelbarrow, restored and then re-installed in November 2017. We also found a machine that dispenses food for the ducks and birds, so I purchased some. However I hadn't read the guidelines properly, so didn't realise that I would need my own container. We ended up with a load of loose bird-feed which we had to continue scooping out the machine before scattering to the crowd of expectant waterfowl!

The post-parkrun social gathering takes place in the park's café, called the 'Café in the Park'. We didn't have enough time to pop in ourselves, but I remember on our last visit it was cash-only. I have had it confirmed that this is still the case as of July 2024, so if you are looking to visit the café make sure you bring some good old-fashioned money with you!

It is also worth noting that Lake Meadows Park is home to the largest fireworks display in the whole of Essex, and the set-up for this event means that the parkrun has to cancel. So remember, remember to check for a cancellation at the beginning of November. I hear that the locals like to go on tour when this happens and they've even made it as far as Barry Island in Wales, which is linked to Billericay through the Gavin and Stacey TV show.

It can also hold up to 5,000 people for other outdoor events such as music concerts. I imagine any events of this size could also lead to the parkrun being cancelled so again be sure to check beforehand. After the parkrun, the rain started coming down heavier again, so once we had finished feeding the birds, we quickly headed over to the car and made our way home. The park is small but very nicely laid out, some may even say it is lush. We had a great morning and a huge thanks to the team of volunteers that made the whole thing possible.

Sunday 30 June 2024

Basildon parkrun

Basildon is a town and a borough in the county of Essex. The name is thought to be derived from an Anglo-Saxon settlement called Boerthals Hill. The earliest written record of Basildon is from the Domesday Book in 1086 where it was recorded as Belesduna or Behoter. Throughout the following centuries it was subsequently recorded as Berdlesdon, Bretlesden, Batlesdon, Batlesden, Bassendon and Basseldon. For over 850 years it was a village with its population remaining less than 200 well into the 19th century. By the beginning of the 1930's it had increased to 1,159 mostly due to the availability of cheap plots of land, however there was not much infrastructure and around three-quarters of the homes were not connected to the sewers.

In 1949 the modern-day town was formed from the amalgamation of four small villages - Pitsea, Laindon, Basildon, and Vange. The new town took the name of Basildon as it was the most central of the four. It was created following the passing of the New Towns Act 1964 which was put in place to establish new settlements for those who had been bombed out of their homes during the second world war. The designated New Towns were removed from local authority control and placed under the authority of a development corporation. Basildon was part of the first wave of 10 New Towns, with 8 of these being located just beyond London's green belt. As of the 2021 census the population was 115,955 with many having roots back to London's east end.

A couple of interesting records that Basildon has held over the years are; The town's main shopping centre, 'Eastgate Shopping Centre' which has 750,000 sq. ft of retail space, was the largest covered shopping centre in Europe when it was completed in 1985. The second is that in 2017 Coasta Coffee constructed a roastery in the town and this is noted as being the largest coffee roastery in Europe (although Costa themselves note it is being 'one of the largest'). It can produce 45,000 tonnes of coffee per year. I also couldn't write this blog without giving Basildon's famous Hollywood-style sign a mention - It was installed at the side of the A127 in 2010 at a cost of £90,000 and has faced ridicule over the years. However, it is kind of quirky and I like it.

Basildon's most famous exports are from the entertainment world. Firstly the synth-pop, electronic rock, dark wave, band Depeche Mode. Secondly Alison Moyet. who was half of the synth-pop duo Yazoo, incidentally with Depeche Mode's former drummer Vince Clarke who then went on to form Erasure. A mention should also go to Perry Bamonte from the Cure and Keith Chapman, creator of the Bob the Builder and PAW Patrol children's shows, who also both went to school in the town. The incredible thing is that Alison, Perry, and DM's Martin and Andy were all in the same class together!

Much of the land used to develop the town was formerly farmland and one farm in particular is of interest to this write-up. Felmores Farm in the former village of Pitsea was once around 60 acres in size, and it survived the initial development. However, in the 1970s the expansion of the town finally came knocking on the farm's door. Most of the former farmland was developed into homes and was named Felmores Estate. When developing the area, part of the land was landscaped into a park which is called Northlands Park. In more recent times the local council has re-branded the area as the Northlands Park Neighbourhood, but most locals still refer to it as Felmores.

The park itself was created in the 1970s and features two lakes in its north-west corner which were designed to catch floodwater, preventing the newly created neighbourhoods from flooding. The picturesque lakes provide home to a range of wildlife including water birds and insects such as dragonflies, and are also used for fishing. The northern part of the park also contains other facilities such as a playground, skate park, sports court, and a cafe. The southern half of the park is made up of gently undulating naturally landscaped areas packed full of trees, grassy fields and meandering pathways. In April 2014 Northlands Park became home to a free, weekly, timed 5 kilometre event called Basildon parkrun. The event is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk the course.

I first visited the event in May 2014 where I took part in event number 7, the write-up from that event can be found here: Basildon parkrun 2014. I returned in June 2024 and this is where this new, and hopefully improved, write-up dates from. On both occasions I drove to the venue and parked in the free-of-charge onsite car park which is at the north of the park and accessed from the roundabout on the road called Felmores. Should an alternative be required you could probably find a bit of on-street parking in the residential streets to the north-east of the park. Incidentally there is a Premier Inn just opposite the car park, which makes this a great option for anybody looking for a parkrun within walking distance of a purple palace.

If travelling to the venue by public transport, there are two train stations to choose from, both served by c2c trains on the London Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness line. Firstly, the closest station is Pitsea where the connecting journey on foot is around 2.5 kilometres. It may be possible to pick up the B3 Basildon Shuttlebus from Pitsea High Street which then stops near the Northlands Park car park. The other option is alighting at Basildon station, but it is further away with the connecting walk being 3.8 kilometres. The connecting bus services seem to be number 25 or the B3 Basildon Shuttlebus. There may also be other buses that stop near the park such as the 1A, 49, 50 and the X10 Airlink service which connects Basildon to Stanstead Airport. When I first visited there were no proper bicycle racks in the park, but there is now a small bank of racks set within a shelter in-between the car park and the playground.

The meeting point for the parkrun is just outside the Two Lakes Cafe building which is next to the playground and faces towards the lakes. The park's toilets are located at the rear of the cafe building and when I visited they were open well in advance of the parkrun start time. There are two briefings that take place before the event starts, a detailed more intimate one for first-timers and then a large briefing for everybody - both of these take place outside the cafe and once complete the participants move across to the start line which is on the grass next to the skate park.

When I first visited in 2014 the parkrun used an almost-three-lap anti-clockwise course, but this has now been changed to a clockwise course, and it still uses an almost-three-lap configuration. While most of the route is fairly flat, there are some sections in the southern half that feature some ups and downs. Overall I wouldn't describe the course as being hilly, just gently undulating and my GPS data recorded a total elevation change of 26 metres. Underfoot is mixed terrain, so expect to find a nice varied selection of grass, tarmac, stones and dirt. In the winter, trail shoes may be helpful as it can become muddy in the southern half of the park, but in the summer road shoes are perfectly fine.

The opening section on grass is only used at the start and after about 100 metres it joins the main loop at Ian and Shane's Corner, the first of three named corners on the course. The path gently meanders around as it heads to the south. The next significant turn is at the south-east corner of the course where there is a sharp right-hand turn onto a stony path at Anne's Corner. The course begins to rise at this point and it follows the natural path through the southern section of the park. There's another short section on grass where the course then merges onto another path that dips downhill. The surface underfoot is quite uneven here, and when I visited some sections had been highlighted with small cones.

Passing through a section of woodland via a sweeping dip in the terrain, the course then emerges at Derek's Corner, and this marks the beginning of the north-west corner of the park where the route circumnavigates the two lakes. This section has a tarmac path underfoot and is flat. As the course reaches the north-east side of the lakes, the playground and the cafe building come back into view and the course passes both before a final left hand turn then leads back along to Ian and Shane's Corner and this completes the full lap. It is repeated in full one more time, and then when reaching the cafe at the end of the third lap, the finish funnel can be entered.

Barcode scanning takes place just after exiting the finish funnel and the parkrunners and volunteers have their post-event refreshments at the Two Lakes Cafe. There's a bit of outdoor seating which gives a lovely scenic viewpoint across the lakes. If you have children with you, it's also a very convenient spot for letting them play in the playground. I had recorded the course using my Garmin and the GPS data can be viewed on my Strava account. You can also view a Relive course fly-by video of the course on my YouTube channel. For anybody interested in the original 2014 anti-clockwise course, my original GPS data can also be viewed on Strava.

The results were published a little later that morning and 228 people had participated at event 469. This was a little higher than the average which tends to be in the 160-180 range. The attendance figure seems to be in the low 100's during the winter and can even drop into double figures when conditions are particularly harsh.

It's a really lovely park and definitely worth a visit. I really enjoyed chatting to some of the locals and to the volunteers, who I'd like to thank for making us feel welcome and for putting on the event on the day we visited.

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Monday 24 June 2024

Grovelands parkrun

Grovelands is a former country estate which sits on the boundary between Winchmore Hill and Southgate, in the London Borough of Enfield. The name Southgate originates from its location at the original South Gate of the King's former hunting ground, Enfield Chase. Winchmore Hill is first recorded as Wynsemerhull possibly indicating a boundary hill, it had evolved into the modern spelling by 1586. The two suburbs have a combined residential population of around 25,000 people. The area has a number of notable current and former residents, with many being from within the music industry such as Rod Stewart, Paul Young, Cliff Richard, Keith Moon, Errol Brown and Amy Winehouse.

One of the area's other famous residents was Elizabeth Sawyer who apparently lived within the woods in Winchmore Hill. She was convicted and executed in 1621 for witchcraft after allegedly casting a spell on her neighbour, who subsequently died, after a disagreement involving a pig. She was the inspiration for the play 'The Witch of Edmonton'. The local area was almost entirely covered in woodland, and much of the land was worked as coppices which provided employment for the local population. The largest of the areas was called The Grove and this was purchased at the end of the 18th century by a Quaker brewer called Walker Gray who had a grand mansion built - it was completed in 1798, initially called Southgate Grove.

Shortly after the mansion was completed, the 260 acres of gardens were landscaped by Humphrey Repton and this included adding an ornamental lake to the grounds. Some of the areas of woodland were retained in order to create a rural feel to the garden. The next owner of the estate, John Donnithorne Taylor, embarked on a journey of enlargement where the lake was expanded from its original four acres to seven acres. One of his hobbies was apparently purchasing land and by the time of his death in 1885, the estate's size had increased to 600 acres. He also changed the name of the house and estate from Southgate Grove, firstly to Woodlands, and then to its current name Grovelands. His son inherited the estate and introduced a herd of deer, which are no longer present as they were relocated to the Luton Hoo estate.

The Taylor family continued to reside in the house until 1916 when it was lent (free of charge) as a war hospital. A sixty-four acre area of the grounds was sold to Southgate Urban District Council, who used it to create a public park called Grovelands Park. It opened to the public in April 1913. The house itself was sold in 1921 and it became the Royal Northern Hospital and then an NHS convalescent home, until it closed down in 1977. It then fell into a state of disrepair, but it was restored when it was purchased by Community Psychiatric Centres. Since 1986 it has been part of the Priory Hospital Group under the name 'Grovelands Priory Hospital' where it specialises in mental health and addiction treatment. It is known for being a place of refuge for many celebrities. A notable resident was Chile's General Pinochet who spent time here in 1998 while under house arrest on charges of 'genocide and terrorism that include murder'.

The park sits just to the east of the hospital grounds and retains much of Renton's original landscaping including meadows, woodland and the lake, which is now home to a colony of terrapins thought to be the descendants of abandoned pets that managed to survive and breed. In addition to these features, there is also a Pitch and Putt golf course, two children's playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts and Grovelands bowls club. In July 2010 the park became home to a free, weekly, timed 5km event called Grovelands parkrun. The event is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk or to anyone that would like to be involved with this fantastic community event via volunteering.

The reason this parkrun came into existence was largely down to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club's Foundation Team who took the lead in creating and managing the event throughout its first three years. The story I heard was that the football club needed some land for a new training facility, the local council had some, but a condition of them allowing Tottenham FC to use it was that they'd have to do something to promote health and fitness in the local community in return. In the summer of 2013 it was announced that the event would adopt the standard practice of being run by the community themselves, and that's how it has been ever since. I first visited on 22 June 2013 (while it was still being run by the football club) where I participated in event 144 and there were a total of 57 participants. Over the years the number of finishers has steadily risen, however it wasn't until October 2014 that the event broke the 100 mark. As of June 2024 the average weekly attendance is usually around 240 -260.

This write-up is from my second visit to Grovelands, and that was on 22 June 2024 - exactly 11 years to the day after my first visit. I've used two forms of transport to reach this venue. Back in 2013 I travelled by tube and alighted at Southgate, which is served by the Piccadilly Line. The onward walk to the park is just under a kilometre, so it should take around 10 minutes. There are some buses that stop in the local area, notably the W9, 121, 298 and 299 that all stop in Southgate, near the station. There is also a 456 service which stops just to the north of the park. The closest national rail station is Winchmore Hill which is served by Great Northern trains running on the London Moorgate to Stevenage line.

The park does not have a car park, but there are some free-of-charge on-street parking options. The obvious place to head for is Broad Walk, which is also sometimes referred to as Millionaires Row owing to it being the location of several large, detached houses. When I revisited in 2024 I parked on Woodcroft, which is just off of Broad Walk and very conveniently located opposite the park's eastern entrance. There are plenty of other residential roads on all sides of the park which are restriction-free, so parking should be relatively easy. For cyclists, I didn't spot any proper bike racks in the park, and it looked like most people used the small metal rail which separates the footpath from the lake.

The park's toilets are located within the cafe building. However both the toilets and the cafe are currently closed and this appears to have been the case for quite some time. The building itself looks to be in a poor state of repair and as of June 2024 I couldn't see any evidence of any change to this situation. So as it stands, you would be advised to find toilet facilities elsewhere. The closest options I could find were a Wetherspoons pub called The New Crown (open from 8am) or McDonalds (open from 7am), both a few minutes away from Southgate Station. For the record, neither of the train stations mentioned above have toilets according to their respective web pages.

Once in the park, the parkrun meeting point and start area can be found on the footpath junction at the north-west corner of the lake. This is at a fairly central point of the park. Back in my original 2013 write-up I noted that this felt very much like a flashmob-style parkrun, and I would still say the same eleven-years later. There was a visibility of volunteers from about 8.30am, but the majority of participants seemed to arrive at the start area after 8.55am. There was a first-timers briefing and this was followed by the main briefing which took place at the start line.

The parkrun takes place over an almost-three-lap anti-clockwise course and the surface underfoot is tarmac all the way around. Shoe choice is very simple as regular road running shoes are the best to use all year round. The hill profile can be described as undulating with the total elevation gain being 56 metres according to the GPS data on my Strava account. The course is totally fine for buggy runners, and I would imagine wheelchair users would also be fine here too, but this would be a decision for each individual noting that this is not a completely flat course. For the record, the course was exactly the same as it was when I visited in 2013, with the only minor changes being the positioning of the start line and the finish funnel.

The start is on the wide avenue that runs east-west across the centre of the park, with the course turning immediately to take the left-hand path which heads to the north-east with the woods on the right. When I visited in June 2024 there was a coffee truck parked on the corner that everyone had to go around. The lap can be divided into two sections; the first is the long anti-clockwise circular section which goes around the outside of the park's main large grassy area. It is actually a lot prettier than I remember it being from my first visit, and it contains a selection of long grasses and various clusters of trees. The path splits after about 300 metres, and the parkrun course follows the curve to the left as it passes the basketball courts.

This is where the uphill section can be found - it lasts for about 350 metres and the first half of it is the steepest with an average gradient of around 5%. The maximum gradient is 6.3% according to my GPS data. The second half of the hill sees the gradient gradually ease off until it returns to being flat for a short period. At the highest point of the course, the views across the grassland area are fantastic - I can't guarantee it will always look the same, but it looked very lush in June 2024. I should also mention that you'll find a few marshals at key points around the course. The downhill part is much gentler than the incline and lasts for a lot longer, although at times it is so gentle it feels flat.

The second section of the lap starts part-way through the decline and this section is like a tail with a point at the far end. In fact you could say the course resembles the shape of a tadpole, or even a bird's head with a beak. The first part of this section heads roughly in a south-easterly direction and there is a pleasant view to the left looking towards the lake. The end of this path features a very sharp corner which is very nearly a 180 degree turn. This leads onto the lakeside path and when the end of the lake is reached, the 1.75km lap is complete. The second lap is identical to the first, as is the third, but is a little bit shorter at 1.5km as it turns off the lakeside path shortly after joining it and into the finish.

Barcode scanning takes place on the grass immediately after the finish, and when all of the participants and the tail walker have completed the 5 kilometres, the event is over. The post-event coffee is noted on the course page as taking place at a local cafe. I gather from a reliable source that this may be Huddle Caffe in Winchmore Hill. Of course on this occasion there was a coffee truck selling drinks and snacks, but I'm not sure if it is there every week. I recorded the course using my Garmin and the course GPS data can be viewed on my Strava account. I also made a Relive course fly-by video and that can be viewed on YouTube.

After a brief post-parkrun downpour, we headed into the woods to explore and to let the kids play on the adventure playground. There's also a tiny stream running through the woods which seemed to be even more popular than the playground. We then popped over to the lake to try to spot some terrapins, but they seemed to be evading us. We probably would have stayed longer if the toilets were operational, but they weren't so we hit the road just before 11am.

Our parkrun results came through a short while later and 236 people had participated at event 659, which was very representative of the number to be expected here. Our morning in north London was very pleasant and the park was much nicer than I had remembered from my first visit. I'd like to finish by saying a huge thank you to all the volunteers that made the event possible.

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Monday 10 June 2024

Henlow Bridge Lakes parkrun

Henlow is a village and civil parish in the ceremonial county of Bedfordshire. The name is thought to have come from the Old English 'Henna Hlaw' which means 'hill frequented by wild birds' and was subsequently recorded in the Domesday Book as Haneslau. In 1917 an area of land in the south of the parish was chosen as the site for RAF Henlow. It was originally a military aircraft repair depot and was subsequently used as the first parachute testing centre. During the Second World War it was used as an assembly centre for Hawker Hurricanes whose components had been shipped in from Canada. Adjacent to the base is the civilian settlement of Henlow Camp. In total the parish is home to around 3,800 people, with around 2,200 of these residing within the village itself.

The village was historically divided into three separate manors, Henlow Warden, Henlow Llanthony and Henlow de Grey. An 18th century manor house still stands and this is called Henlow Grange. In the 1960's it became the Henlow Grange Beauty Farm where it was once frequented by celebrities. The place has an uncomfortable link with Jimmy Savile who is alleged to have committed some of his abuse crimes in the mansion. It is now the Champneys Henlow Grange luxury health spa. The grounds of the manor house once extended to the east to the parish border at the River Hiz (Hitch), but the land here is now home to a campsite and angling facility called Henlow Bridge Lakes.

Henlow Bridge Lakes is situated in 33 acres of land in the eastern part of Henlow parish and also sits right next to the site of Etonbury Castle, the castle would have been constructed from timber and has been long gone for hundreds of years. Most of the remaining archaeological evidence was destroyed during the construction of the railway. It is also next to the village of Arlesey. The campsite features hard standing pitches for camper vans all year round, and has grass pitches available between March and September for tents. In addition to these there are lodges, cabins and pods for hire. In 2002 two large angling lakes were created, they were named Jordans Lake and Vincents Lake.

I've done some online research and I cannot find any record of there ever being an actual bridge called Henlow Bridge, and this was confirmed by some of the locals I spoke to. The 'bridge' most likely relates to the modern trunk road flyover which is adjacent to the campsite. There is a small medieval bridge not far from the site which used to form part of the main road between the two villages, in fact it was the only river crossing in this area so I imagine it used to be a very busy spot. This is Arlesey Bridge; the original medieval bridge still forms the main structure but upon first glance all you can see are the modern-day modifications which were required to widen it.

We visited the area to take part in Henlow Bridge Lakes parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed 5km event that takes place on Saturday mornings at 9am. It is open to all abilities including people who wish to walk and is also a great option for anyone that would like to be involved in some local volunteering. The parkrun has been in operation since September 2021. The venue is located just a few minutes' walk from Arlesey Train Station which is served by direct Thameslink services from Horsham (West Sussex) via Crawley, Gatwick, Croydon, London Bridge, Blackfriars and St Pancras station, before heading through Stevenage and Hitchin. From the other direction direct trains run from Peterborough via Huntingdon and St Neots. Despite its rural location it is actually very well connected.

The closest bus stop is on the A507 main road near Arlesey Station and from what I can gather, is served by the 9A, 9C and W1 buses. If you are prepared to walk a little further, the 9B, 74, W5 and W6 buses stop in the centre of Henlow. If cycling is you method of travel, you will find some bicycle racks within Henlow Bridge Lakes, just next to the campsite shop near the Angler's entrance.

Travelling to the venue by vehicle is also possible, however there is no on-site parking available for parkrunners. The recommended place to park is the Arlesey and Henley train station car park. For the record this is the same train station as mentioned above but for some reason the car park is labelled with the train station's name from the 1930's when it was indeed known as Arlesey and Henlow station. It is run by a company called Britannia Parking and has ANPR cameras. As of June 2024 I can confirm that the car park is free-of-charge at weekends, which is great news for parkrunners. Previous visitors to this parkrun would have paid for parking, however Britannia Parking should never have been charging for weekends in the first place as 'free weekend parking' was a condition laid down when the original request for planning permission was agreed to.

I will also note that the slip road that leads off the main road towards the car park can only be accessed from one direction, so if you approach from the east (for example, from Arlesey or the A1) you have to drive past the venue and use the next roundabout to make a u-turn. Both the car park and the campsite, including the need to make a u-turn, are clearly marked with road signs from the main A507 trunk road.

Finding the entrance to Henlow Bridge Lakes is relatively straight forward. If you arrive by train, you'll need to take the exit heading to the west, and this may involve crossing the station's footbridge. After crossing the tiny Arlesey Bridge you will be outside the aforementioned Arlesey and Henlow station car park. Walking from the car park you can simply head along the small road that passes underneath the modern trunk road and then enter the venue via the public footpath entrance. However if you require the toilets, they are located within the campsite so you'd have to make your way along to the Angler's entrance and then head over to the toilet block. Once finished, you need to retrace your steps back to the footpath entrance area next to the river and the trunk road flyover - if you are relatively early you may find the volunteers assembling near the footpath entrance.

The start of the parkrun is on the northern side of the lakes, to get there you need to follow the footpath, keeping the River Hiz on your right until reaching the start area. Please note that you cannot cut through the campsite or the fishing lakes in order to reach the start area - you must follow the public footpath around the outside. For a visual representation of this, please see my GPS data which shows my walk from the car park to the toilet block and then around to the start area.

The parkrun takes place over a flat, anti-clockwise, two-and-a-half lap course. The terrain underfoot contains a mixture of dirt paths, stony dirt paths, grass and in some sections a wood-chip path. For shoe choice I would note that it is an off-road course which can get very muddy so trail shoes will be useful in less favourable conditions. In the dry summer conditions road shoes will be just fine. Taking part with a buggy should pose no problems, but I would note that if doing so in bad conditions there may be some particularly muddy sections to deal with. While this is not the ideal course for wheelchair users, I'd say in dry conditions it is do-able providing the individual is confident with negotiating the terrain mentioned above. Dogs can take part under the normal parkrun rules, but the footpath has its own rule that dogs must be kept on a lead at all times, including outside of the parkrun event.

The briefings are held at the start area and at 9am the participants are sent off on their 5 kilometres of Saturday morning exercise. The start area itself is a decent width, so there is plenty of room for everyone. The actual path in this section is a single-file dirt strip, so the majority of people will be using the grass at this point. There is a small bench towards the end of this opening stretch which could potentially be a hazard. However the volunteer team have clearly noted this already and it is very clearly marked and taped off. Given the location of the start area, it seems to be quite common for there to be late-comers, so you may find that faster people end up darting past those at the back a few minutes after the start.

The footpaths that the parkrun uses are owned and maintained by Henlow Lakes and Riverside Ltd, but are open to the public. Sections of the route form part of The Kingfisher Way and the Hicca Way walking routes. The theme of the course is pretty similar all the way around with the path being almost exclusively bordered by trees, bushes, fences, or the River Hiz. It is all very pleasant but also very contained, so I think I'd be safe to say that it is very well sheltered from the effects of wind. The only time there is any extended view beyond the footpath is when passing the fishing lakes which are very pretty.

There is also an abundance of wildlife present here; we spotted a heron, ducks, geese, fish (of course), something in the adjacent woodland which we couldn't identify (probably a fox), we were told there are also crayfish, but the real highlight for us (the kids) were the tiny frogs hiding within the grass and bushes next to the lakes. I've also hear that there are Kingfishers along the banks of the river.

The route itself meanders around nicely as it follows the boundary of the campsite. There are lots of straight sections and the corners are generally 90 degree turns. The surface underfoot changes from time-to-time as does the width of the path, however there is always plenty of space either side for people to pass. At times there are barbed wire fences to the sides of the path, but there is never any need to get that close to them, so there shouldn't be any particular risk of making contact.

Even when we visited in June, there were still some small muddy sections, but these were relatively easy to navigate around. There are a few gates to pass through around the course, but these are marshalled and propped open for the duration of the event. There are also two points where the course crosses the entrance roads to the campsite and the fishing lakes. Again these spots are marshalled but there is a chance that you may be instructed to stop for safety reasons, so pay attention and follow any instructions the marshals give.

The only significantly narrow section of the course is after the second road crossing where the path runs in-between two fences that then form a narrow bridge which at running pace is negotiated in single file. The finish funnel is located on the grass section in-between the two road crossings. It is passed twice during the 5k and upon reaching it for the third time the participants enter it and are given a finishing position token which can then be scanned along with their personal barcode immediately after the finish. Should anybody be in need of some post-parkrun refreshments, there is a campsite shop which has some covered, but very limited outdoor seating. There is also a playground within the campsite, although my understanding is that this is only supposed to be for those staying onsite.

I used my Garmin to record the GPS data for the course and you can view it on my Strava account. I also used that data to create a Relive course fly-by video that can be viewed on YouTube. The results for event 135 were processed and published later that morning. There had been 129 finishers on the day and this seemed to be about average. However the attendance numbers seem to drop down into double figures during the winter months when the course becomes very muddy and there is also a flooding risk which can lead to the event being cancelled.

After the event we went for another walk around the course where we returned to the area where we had spotted the frogs earlier on. We also headed away from the campsite to see Henlow Grange, which is a very nice looking building. We then had a little wander through the campsite and it looks like a nice spot to spend a couple of nights. The walk ended back at the River Hiz where we managed to find the viewpoint for seeing the medieval section of Arlesey Bridge. With all that done, it was time to start our journey back home. The morning had been really nice and a big thank you must go to all of the volunteers and other locals who made us feel so welcome during our time here.

Related Links:

Sunday 2 June 2024

Milton Country parkrun

Milton is a village that sits to the north of the city of Cambridge, in Cambridgeshire. The land is thought to have been occupied since around 10,000 BC, and the natural composition of the soil made it an ideal place to grow crops. During the Roman period, Milton was home to a number of farmsteads producing grain. This would have been transported to the Roman military fort, Duroliponte, which was located in what is now Cambridge. It continued as a small farming community where it was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as having 36 households. The population remained almost identical well into the 17th century, and even as the village grew, the number of people remained under a thousand right up until the 1960's. Major housing developments in the 1980s increased the population further and the present-day village is home to 4,400 people.

The area in the south of the village was known to have been quarried for materials since Roman times, where the Romans extracted clay for use in the production of pottery. By the 1930's the area was once again being quarried, this time it was for sand and gravel to be used for major house and road building projects. This ceased in the 1960s and the area was left unattended for over 20 years. In 1990 work began on transforming the now overgrown area into a country park, and in May 1993, with the work complete, it was opened as Milton Country Park. The park was initially managed by South Cambridgeshire District Council, but due to funding issues this was outsourced on a 99-year lease to a registered charity called Cambridge Sport Lakes Trust, who have managed it since 2008.

The park has areas of woodland and grassland including a D-Day Remembrance Meadow, but the main features are the lakes which were created using the large pits that were created during the sand and gravel extraction. The lakes are used extensively for fishing and water-sports, where you will find opportunities to take part in paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing. Cycling is a big thing in this part of the country, British Cycling regularly runs sessions on the park's off-road cycling tracks. Elsewhere in the park you will find 'Zapt Laser Tag' which is described as 'the ultimate action-packed outdoor gaming experience', a couple of children's playgrounds, cafe, sensory garden and an orchard. It's even home to a forest school, bushcraft and outdoor education centre called The Wild Place. It is also one of the places in the UK where you can spot black squirrels.

On 30 January 2010 the park became home to its very own free, weekly, timed 5km event called Cambridge parkrun. Then the pandemic came along and when it was time for parkrun to return, sadly Cambridge parkrun didn't. Then, in April 2023, after an absence of just over three years, the parkrun returned to Milton Country Park, but with a brand new name of Milton Country parkrun. The re-birth of the parkrun also came with a change of course. Like all parkruns, the event is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk the course. The course is fine for those who wish to participate with a buggy but please note that parkrunners are not permitted to take part with a dog. I visited the park on 1 June 2024 and took part in event number 576. 

If travelling by car, the venue has a fair-sized car park that seems to be able to accommodate the parkrunners and other visitors quite comfortably. There is a charge for parking and all the proceeds go towards the upkeep of the park. At the time of my visit, the charges were £1 for up to 30 minutes (very unlikely that many parkrunners would be able to take advantage of this option), up to 2 hours costs £3.75, while anything over 2 hours is charged at £6. Payment can be made in a couple of ways, the first option is to pay at the machine which only accepts contactless payments from either a card or contactless payment app on a smartphone. The other option is to pay for the parking in advance through the park's website. Should you wish to avoid the car park entirely, you may be able to find some parking on residential streets in the village, but you will then have at least a kilometre to reach the park.

Travel by public transport is also possible, however Milton doesn't have its own train station, so if travelling by train it is best to aim for Cambridge North station. The onward walk to the country park is approximately 1.2 miles (2 kilometres). There is also a bus, the Stagecoach number 2 service, which runs from the south of Cambridge, through the city centre, then via Cambridge North train station and onto Milton. The bus stops on Cambridge Road just outside the large Tesco and the country park is just a few minutes' walk from here. Finally for anyone cycling, you may be in for a treat, as Cambridge is known as the cycling capital of the UK. The town has a great cycling infrastructure which certainly makes it an ideal way to get around. The country park has multiple banks of cycle racks.

I would imagine most people would enter via the car park entrance as this is the main entry point regardless of the method of arrival. This is quite handy as this is where the toilets are located - I can report that they appeared to be in very good condition and they were open when I arrived in the park at around 8.15am. From the car park, it's not instantly obvious exactly which way to head to find the parkrun meeting point. It is in fact quite simple, all you do is head in a straight line for about 250 metres. If looking on a map you need to aim for the bottom left hand (south-west) corner of the lake called Dickerson's Pit. If you use the park's official map the closest marked feature is the 'viewpoint'. The start and finish points are also located in this area.

The parkrun takes place over a clockwise two-and-a-bit-lap course with the addition of a start tail and a finish tail (note: two separate tails). The surface underfoot is exactly what you would expect for a country park. The paths are largely dirt with some compacted stones and they are quite often muddy, or at the very least a little splashy. I always go with trail shoes on this type of course, but road shoes will do the job if the conditions are good (ie not too muddy). Although I will add that some of the muddy patches I encountered were quite slippery, even in trail shoes. The hill profile is non-existent and this was confirmed by my GPS data which shows an elevation gain of zero metres. The first-timers' and the main briefings take place at the meeting point and all the participants then form the start line facing towards the east.

The path at the start is just a standard-width, but there is a bit of grass at the side for some possible over spill, however I found almost all of the participants were very disciplined and stuck to the path. This was probably quite sensible as there are some fixed obstacles on the grass such as trees and a bench. The start section is only covered once and at the end of it the path merges seamlessly into the park's perimeter path where the two-and-a-bit clockwise laps largely take place. The paths are almost entirely tree-lined giving this event a forest feel and despite there being multiple lakes within the centre of the park, only a few fleeting glimpses of them are ever seen.

Within the early part of the lap the route emerges into the central area of the park and passes quite close to the car park and toilets, but then it heads off northwards alongside another of the park's lakes called Todd's Pit. Once away from the familiar central section, I have to admit that I completely lost my bearings and had no idea where I was at any given time - this is not a course that you could easily turn up to do a freedom run. There are marshals dotted around at various points on the course and there are other sections where the route is marked with arrows and this seems to work just fine. There are a couple of wooden bridges to cross; the first one is wide enough for two people to negotiate side-by-side, but the second one is single file.

I found I had two quite different experiences on the laps. The first lap was busy but not too congested, so felt a bit hustly and bustly, but the second lap turned out to be much more peaceful and I felt really relaxed plodding around the lovely country park. I even had a few chats with fellow parkrunners I encountered along the way. I also found out about a thing called 'Milton Pong'. Just to the south of Milton (very close to the country park) is Cambridge's sewage works and in certain conditions, the foul smell can drift right across the village, hence the 'Milton Pong'. I didn't smell anything untoward during my visit and although that's probably a good thing, I was a tiny bit disappointed that I didn't experience one of Milton's quirky features.

There are a couple of long straight pathways but in-between them there are many glorious sections of meandering and twisty forest paths to play on - I found myself in a very happy place during these sections! Keep an eye out underfoot as there are some protruding tree roots on the paths and depending on the time of year there will also be mud. My visit was in June so the course was in fairly decent shape, but there were still some large sections of mud, and as I mentioned earlier, some bits were quite slippery. There is a point in the lap where there is a T junction where the course turns left upon the first and second time of reaching it. Upon reaching it for the third time, the course turns right and this is the finish tail which is about 100 metres in length and heads back into the parkrun meeting area where the finish funnel can be found.

Barcode scanning takes place on the grass area immediately after the finish and the post-parkrun refreshments can be found in Grounds Cafe, which has a lovely lakeside position with both indoor and outdoor seating. I recorded the course using my Garmin and the data has been uploaded onto Strava, so feel free to take a look if you'd like to see the course in more detail. There is also a Relive course fly-by video which I made from that data, again feel free to take a look at that on YouTube. The results for event 576 were processed and published online a few hours later, and I see that 211 people took part. This figure is broadly in line with the average number of attendees, although it does sometimes jump up into the 300's. So far the new iteration of the event has not reached the much higher numbers that the original Cambridge parkrun was getting.

After the parkrun the natural thing to do may be to pop into the centre of Cambridge to explore the city centre. I have never actually been into Cambridge itself, and this time was no different. I decided to save it for when I have the rest of the family with me so we can make a proper day out of it. So once I'd finished chatting to some of the locals and had a little look around the rest of the park, I headed off. I had such a lovely morning at the event and I left with very nice memories of my visit. Thank you to all of the volunteers and everyone else that made me feel so welcome.

Related Links:

Cambridge parkrun write-ups:

Double Londone

I've been Londone (and Londone+) on and off a number of times since first completing the challenge in 2013. As I'm now accompanying the rest of my family on their quests to become Londone, I am naturally visiting a lot of places I have been to before. Hence the quest to become double Londone!

Simply, it means having visited every London parkrun at least twice. It can also be extended into Double Londone+ to include all the venues within the M25.

It could then be extended into triple Londone and so on, but is there anyone that would really want to do that? 

The green pins are the parkrun venues that I have visited more than once. The red pins are the venues that I have not visited more than once. As you can see, it is progressing nicely.

Special note for the new parkrun in Morden, which I haven't visited yet so still requires two visits to turn the pin green.

77 venues in total

  • Visited multiple times: 53
  • Visited once: 23
  • Never visited: 1

Greater London

  • Greater London venues: 63
  • Visited multiple times = 46
  • Visited once = 16
  • Never visited: 1

London+ additional venues (outside Greater London, but inside the M25)

  • London+ venues: 14
  • Visited multiple times = 7
  • Visited once = 7
  • Never visited = 0

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